Calico, by Dorien Grey, may very well be the first gay YA novel I ever read, not counting novels like A Separate Peace, which weren’t actually intended to be gay.
It was published in 2006 by Zumaya Boundless at a time when the very idea of a gay character in a YA novel was scandalous. It came to my attention, in fact, because it was on a list of books people were trying to ban. As I recall, the same people who were throwing fits about this novel were also in a frenzy over the children’s book Jennifer Has Two Daddies (by Dr. Priscilla Galloway and Ana Auml), despite the fact that that had been out for over twenty years. I mention this, because it probably factors in to what I’m going to say later.
In the novel, young Calico Ramsey is hired to escort two 17-year-old siblings, Josh and Sarah, to Bow Ridge to live with their aunt. Along the way, it becomes clear that somebody wants the twins dead and Calico finds himself falling in love with Josh.
Repeating History: the Eye of Ra by Dakota Chase was published a few years later in 2010 by Prizm. It follows the adventures of two teens — Aston and Grant — who are sent back in time by Merlin to retrieve an Egyptian artifact (the Eye of Ra) from King Tutankhamen. They manage to ingratiate themselves to the young king, but they soon realize that they might be in a position to thwart an assassination plot against him. Can they change history and save King Tut? And will doing so cause them to be trapped for the rest of their lives in Ancient Egypt?
Both of these YA novels are excellent and I highly recommend reading them. They also share a loving attention to historical detail. The tone is different, with Calico presenting the reader with a very gritty (and often dangerous) Old West and The Eye of Ra depicting a much lighter-hearted, but still richly detailed, story of two boys trapped in a time and place they’ve only read about in the history books.
I have one criticism of both of the novels, which is why I’ve grouped them together in this blog entry. It just happened that, while I was reading each of these two novels, completely independently, I was struck by the same thought: Where’s the sex?
Now, I’m not insisting that every YA novel should have sex in it, or saying that an author doesn’t have the right to choose whether or not to include sex. Certainly, there are times when sex is appropriate in a novel and times when it is not, and one could argue that the latter is usually the case with YA novels. I also recognize that both authors may have felt that their readers or their publishers may not have tolerated anything more than a chaste kiss or two. Certainly I’ve seen plenty of reviews of YA novels with gay content where readers echo the tedious sentiment, “There’s a little gay romance, but not that bad. You can ignore it and get into the story, if you like.”
But all that aside, what bothers me is when the lack of sex doesn’t feel true to the characters to me. Now, keep in mind that when I was 17, I was shy and hated undressing in front of my classmates in gym. I also went to a fundamentalist church that was extremely disapproving of same-sex…exploration…and as a result, I didn’t even know that I was gay. Seriously. I just thought I was a late bloomer. Yet somehow even I managed to see quite a lot of male nudity and raunchy sexual humor amongst my friends. And when I finally met another gay man (I was nineteen, by then) who was willing, I couldn’t wait more than a few days before “doing it.”
Of course, your mileage may vary.
But I do find it extremely unrealistic when two teenage boys are alone together and horny, knowing that they’re both interested…yet they refuse to do anything. In Calico, Calico and Josh kiss about midway through the book. Then Calico refuses to kiss for the rest of the novel, until the end, fretting that Josh isn’t legally an adult yet. In The Eye of Ra, Aston and Grant start making out one night in the dunes and suddenly they feel they have to stop, because, as Aston puts it, “It would be bad.” Bad? What would be bad? Both of these feel contrived. In reality, a 17-year-old would probably have been considered adult in the 1800s and two hot-and-bothered teenage boys really need a better reason for putting on the breaks than, “It would be bad.”
Keep in mind that when two boys start groping at each other, the context is vastly different than when a boy starts groping at his girlfriend. They don’t have all that baggage of “Good girls don’t do this!” and “What if she gets pregnant?” and “What if he’s just using me?” to contend with.
There is baggage, certainly, but it’s different. There’s no chance of pregnancy. There’s little sense of having to maintain an image of purity. And even though there is some chance of exposure to HIV and other STDs, if both boys are sexually inexperienced, they’re unlikely to worry too much about that, assuming that neither could have caught anything yet. (Not always true, of course.)
What there is, is fear of being of being labeled a “fag,” and that’s a real fear. The social stigma is enormous, even today, and certainly would have been a major concern in the 1800s. But there’s also a sense of mutual transgression: it’s more difficult (though not impossible) for one to accuse the other without implicating himself. (Whereas a teenage girl might risk losing her reputation, if her boyfriend chooses to boast about having sex with her, while his status with his friends would likely increase.) There is also guilt, of course. But my experience was that my brain tended to shut off at the time, and I didn’t fret about things until afterward, my religious bent notwithstanding. Lastly, there is just plain shyness and anxiety about venturing into sexual maturity.
Again, everybody is different. Some boys may just go for it; others may have too much anxiety about it and may push back. Or perhaps one will be shy, while the other will be more aggressive. All of these are valid options. But the reader shouldn’t be left feeling that the reason the characters aren’t having sex is simply because it’s a YA novel and the publisher forbids it.
Again, both of these novels are terrific and I hope the authors aren’t offended by me using them for examples. It just so happened that they both brought the same thought to mind, while I was reading them. I do recommend them as good YA novels with gay characters.
Part of the YAM LGBT 2012 Blogathon.